Lewis Explores the Mind of Evil in Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the publication of The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis became famous in Great Britain and America. The book addressed the nature of the moral life and the problem of small, everyday temptations by collecting letters purportedly written from a senior devil to a younger devil that discussed strategies for corrupting an unnamed young man during the bombardment of London in World War II.

Summary of Event

In the summer of 1940, Europe was torn apart by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi German army sweeping through Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Denmark, and Norway. The Battle of Britain began with bombs dropping on London and British and German fighters crossing the skies over England. In a July 20, 1940, letter to his brother Warren (“Warnie”), C. S. Lewis wrote about listening to Hitler’s Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;Nazism speech broadcast on the radio. Lewis mentioned that he was surprised at how much Hitler’s words actually moved him, even though he knew the major points of the speech to be fabricated. Lewis was beginning to internalize the dynamics of persuasion he would use so effectively in The Screwtape Letters (1942). [kw]Lewis Explores the Mind of Evil in The Screwtape Letters (Feb., 1942) [kw]Evil in The Screwtape Letters, Lewis Explores the Mind of (Feb., 1942) [kw]Screwtape Letters, Lewis Explores the Mind of Evil in The (Feb., 1942) Screwtape Letters, The (Lewis) Christianity;literature Fantasy literature Screwtape Letters, The (Lewis) Christianity;literature Fantasy literature [g]Europe;Feb., 1942: Lewis Explores the Mind of Evil in The Screwtape Letters[00450] [g]United Kingdom;Feb., 1942: Lewis Explores the Mind of Evil in The Screwtape Letters[00450] [c]Literature;Feb., 1942: Lewis Explores the Mind of Evil in The Screwtape Letters[00450] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Feb., 1942: Lewis Explores the Mind of Evil in The Screwtape Letters[00450] Lewis, C. S. Lewis, Warren

In the letter to his brother, Lewis unveiled a new idea for a book. The book was initially titled As One Devil to Another. As Lewis envisioned it, the book would be an epistolary work collecting letters from an upper-echelon devil to an apprentice devil who had just started the process of temptation with a new “client.” Inspired by listening to the evil German dictator, Lewis thought his new book would explore the psychology of temptation from the opposite point of view. Lewis, an orthodox Christian apologist and a tutor in Renaissance and medieval literature at Oxford University, would become the ultimate devil’s advocate. Lewis planned to use the mind of Satan to expose the weakness of human character.

Lewis began to write the letters in 1941 and published them weekly from May until November in the Anglican newspaper The Guardian, which paid him in total the equivalent of about fifteen hundred dollars for all of the letters. Lewis donated the earnings from his nonacademic books to religious charities, even during the years of war rationing, when he was short of money. He wrote out all of the letters longhand with pen and ink, because he never learned to type. Warnie typed the final draft manuscript that was sent to the publisher. Ordinarily, Lewis would have burned the handwritten pages after the typed pages were submitted, because he did not have room to keep them. Concerned that the Nazi bombardment of London might destroy the manuscript, however, Lewis kept the handwritten pages and sent them to a friend for safekeeping.

The letters were an immediate sensation. Many people started buying the newspaper just to read the letters. The London publisher Geoffrey Bles was convinced that if it could secure the rights to the letters, the company would have a best seller on its hands. The Screwtape Letters became one of Lewis’s best-known works of theological fantasy. First published in book form in February, 1942, in England and in 1943 in America, the first edition of two thousand copies sold out before they made it to bookstores. Geoffrey Bles reprinted the book eight times in 1942 alone. The Screwtape Letters subsequently sold millions of copies and inspired many people through its imaginative exploration of temptation and human weaknesses.

The Screwtape Letters is a short book of thiry-one letters written from Screwtape—an experienced upper-level bureaucrat in Hell’s administrative structure—to Wormwood, a young apprentice devil trying to tempt his first client. The client is never given a name. Wormwood is instructed by Screwtape in the subtle strategies used to win a soul for Hell. The purpose of the book is to document how the typical human appears to the hierarchy of devils, bent on turning people away from God toward evil. Theology;in literature[literature]

The book had a tremendous impact, because Lewis did not use the cliché imagery of devils with pitchforks and burning lakes of fire in Hell. Instead, Lewis shifted the focus to the subtle temptations of pride, convenience, and false humility in normal, everyday interactions among people. Lewis wrote about small disturbances, prayer, getting along with neighbors, human personality, the causes of laughter, varieties of churches, and God’s love for humankind. The letters addressed many topics, such as the self-absorbed state of mind, hypocrisy, human fallacies, self-indulgence, distractions of modern life, and the peaks and valleys of human experience.

The unnamed client has not yet converted to Christianity when Wormwood is first assigned to tempt him. The client soon converts to Christianity and falls in love with a young woman. The client lives with his mother, and difficulties in their relationship are seen by Screwtape as promising territory in which to move him toward hatred and selfishness. The client’s spiritual journey becomes more difficult because of the ongoing bombardment and the possibility of being drafted into the military. The young man endures a bleak night in which God seems to have forgotten him.

While the latter episode is seen as a hopeful sign by Wormwood, Screwtape argues that the emotional ups and downs of human experience sometimes increase faith rather than diminishing it. The client renews his faith through conflict, and he rededicates himself to God, frustrating Wormwood. The client becomes an air-raid warden and experiences much fear during the evacuation of London. After the evacuation, Screwtape rightly perceives that in spite of his fear, the client fulfilled his duty, and the experience did not weaken his faith. During the second bombing raid, the client is killed, leading Screwtape to give an anguished description of his death, which was a gateway into a new life and an escape from the dangers of Wormwood’s temptations.

The relationship between Screwtape and Wormwood is an important subplot. Both devils fight to deceive and destroy each other, because Hell is essentially competitive. Wormwood can advance only through the demise of his mentor. Screwtape blames Wormwood for mistakes in trying to corrupt the client, and Wormwood blames his difficulties on the flawed suggestions received from his superior. The tone of Screwtape’s letters grows increasingly impatient, as he realizes he will ultimately lose the battle for the young man’s soul.

The overwhelming response to The Screwtape Letters was matched by the reaction to a series of radio lectures that Lewis had given for the British Broadcasting Company, which became the popular book Mere Christianity Mere Christianity (Lewis) (1952). As a result, Lewis started to receive hundreds of letters each year. He usually wrote a personal reply to each correspondent, but he began to rely on Warnie’s ability to answer the letters in the same style and manner. Warnie also began to keep his brother’s appointment schedule and act as a general manager.

In the book’s original preface, Lewis wrote that there are two common mistakes with respect to devils. One is to disbelieve in them, and the other is to take an obsessive, all-consuming interest in them. In the revised preface, Lewis answered the most often-asked question about the book, “Do you believe in the Devil?” He said that did not believe that “the Devil” was an equal and opposite power to God but only a fallen, perverted kind of angel. Lewis said he believed in “devils,” but not in the traditional imagery of a red-faced, bearded man with cloven hooves. Lewis said he believed in the existence of angels, and some of these, through abuse of free will, had fallen into a state of depravity. These devils were parasitic and could exist only by feeding upon other creatures.

Significance

The Screwtape Letters was a breath of fresh air during the dark days of World War II. Despite its focus on strategies for temptations to Hell, the book succeeded because it was fresh, original, and profoundly insightful about human personality. Instead of unrealistic drama or horrific evil, Lewis focused on the spiritual weakness of the average Christian in his or her attempt to lead a good life. The book spoke to millions of readers who treasured Lewis’s insights on the dangers of pride and superficial religious piety. Screwtape Letters, The (Lewis) Christianity;literature Fantasy literature

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hooper, Walter. C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. A comprehensive review and discussion of the life work of C. S. Lewis written by his personal secretary, who became a prominent scholar. Extensive index and topic list.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, C. S. The Letters of C. S. Lewis. Edited and with a memoir by W. H. Lewis. London: Harcourt, 1966. Essential collection of the letters of Lewis that document the growth of his imagination and his many important personal relationships with friends and scholars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sayer, George. Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1994. A very accurate biography written by a personal friend and former student of C. S. Lewis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schultz, Jeffery D., and John G. West, Jr., eds. The C. S. Lewis Reader’s Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1998. Brief encyclopedia entries on all of Lewis’s books and many book topics.

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